Store owner strums his way to success in music business
If it's got strings and you can play it, Elderly likely sells it.
By Barbara Wieland
Lansing State Journal
There probably isn't another office in Lansing quite like the one that belongs to Stan Werbin.
Along one wall of his room stands a rack of unusual stringed musical instruments.
Among them are antique banjos, balalaika-shaped tenor guitars and an akonting.
Few people know that an akonting is a three-stringed instrument from Gambia in western Africa. Fewer still know how to play it. But Werbin aims to become one of them.
It may be a strange goal for a business owner, but then, Werbin's Elderly Instruments is an unusual business. What began as a home-based business in the early 1970s is today a nationally known music shop.
"People come here because they can't find it anywhere else," Werbin said. "We're filling a need."
Need a Celtic harp and squeeze box? Elderly has a couple to choose from. Have a yearning for a sitar or a CD of Armenian lullabies? Elderly has that, too. A ukulele? Not only does Elderly have it, Werbin can play it.
Werbin's interest in music began in his native New York City, where he learned to play the guitar and banjo.
But Werbin pursued science, not music. He came to the University of Michigan to get a master's degree in biochemistry. It wasn't the lab that held his interest, though.
"While I was there, I really discovered the world of music," Werbin said. "This idea struck me that I could find old musical instruments, buy them and resell them."
Werbin chucked his scientific training and began scouring shops and garage sales with his then-girlfriend, Sharon McInturff. They soon had enough stock to start a business, but no place to display them.
The pair began selling out of their home, but Ann Arbor proved to be a tough market. There were already 10 music stores in town.
That's when they met up with Ray Walsh, who founded Curious Book Shop in East Lansing in 1969. Walsh told them there was retail space available near Michigan State University for just $60 a month.
That suited Werbin, who had $500 to bankroll his business.
"I was surprised at first to see just how well they did," Walsh said.
"Elderly Instruments has really become a real local treasure."
The music store opened its doors in 1972 and outgrew its space in little more than a decade. It moved to the former Odd Fellows hall in Lansing's Old Town.
Werbin eventually bought out his partner and he's now president of the company.
Elderly's reputation quickly spread once the store began sending out mail-order catalogs.
"I once heard a guy say that he'd been in Bangkok ... When people found out he was from Michigan, they asked him if he had ever been to Elderly Instruments," Werbin said. "It's surprising how often we hear stuff like that."
Werbin said Elderly is known as one of the leading specialists in the country for old, fretted instruments like the guitar or banjo.
The pressure of maintaining such a reputation hasn't squeezed the fun out of Werbin's life, however. He still makes time to practice music every day.
His current favorite to play is the Japanese song "Sukiyaki" - played on the banjo.
That may sound a bit odd, but it doesn't bother Werbin or the Elderly staffers he plays music with. They call themselves Strangers in the Night.
"The band has a ukulele, a saxophone and a trombone," Werbin said. "It's a bit different from what you might normally hear."